Most people wouldn’t hike five miles in Laguna Beach’s Willow Canyon with a couple of gallons of water strapped to their back.
But Vicki Wadman wanted to make sure the 23 youngsters she was leading on the hike this month wouldn’t go thirsty.
She also brought granola bars and oranges to share with the group from an after-school program provided by Save Our Youth in Costa Mesa.
And she had tennis shoes, T-shirts and hats — leftovers from the seven marathons she’s run.
“You never know what each hike is going to bring,” said Wadman, 55.
Nearly every month for the past year and a half, Wadman has volunteered to load up supplies and take a group of 12- to 18-year-olds on hikes in places ranging from Crystal Cove to the Bridge to Nowhere trail in the San Gabriel Mountains.
“They’re really fun,” said Jose Corona, 13. “[It’s] something different than I would usually do on the weekend.”
Wadman spends a couple of hours each month researching trails that would be appropriate and fun for die-hard hikers and newbies alike. About a week before leading the youths, she blazes the trails alone to familiarize herself.
“We couldn’t even do half the hikes if it wasn’t for Vicki,” said Eduardo “Eddie” Iniestra, arts and music coordinator at SOY.
Wadman , a native of the border town Nogales, Ariz., studied education at the University of Arizona, where she began hiking in earnest. She moved to Costa Mesa 21 years ago.
When their children, Jake, 23, and Claire, 17, were younger, Wadman and her husband, Darrin, regularly took them on camping and backpacking trips.
“[Jake] was like, ‘Mom, when I can make my own decisions, I’m never hiking,’” Wadman remembered with a laugh.
But in October, the two hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim — 21 miles in less than 12 hours.
Though she is signed up for two marathons next spring, Wadman is thinking about training the SOY kids for a hike up California’s Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, according to the National Park Service.
“I’ve heard it many times: ‘Oh, this is too hard, I can’t do this,’” Wadman said. “There’s never been a hike where someone didn’t make it. … But they’ve often said, ‘I can’t.’ So I just think that’s such a great ... life lesson.”
Aleyda Casillas, 13, said she has been on all but three hiking trips since she started going to SOY last year. She likes talking with her friends and pointing out the shapes of rocks along the way — even when the hikes get tough.
“It’s kind of like a challenge. But after that I know I’ll be fine because I keep telling myself, ‘Oh yeah, once I climb it, we’re going down, so it will be easier,’” Aleyda said.
When Wadman took over the hiking trips in 2017, the monthly group had dwindled to about a half-dozen members, said Silvia Rosales, SOY’s operations manager. But through Wadman’s outreach efforts, the number soon grew. Now the average is about 14, and 23 joined Wadman on Dec. 1 for the hike through Willow Canyon.
Wadman, who became a SOY board member in the spring, recruits her friends to join the hikes too. With more adult drivers, more students can attend. Wadman’s sister will fly from Arizona in the new year to accompany a SOY hike.
“You’re getting exercise, you’re in the outdoors, you’re socializing … it’s a sense of accomplishment,” Wadman said. “I just think there are so many positive things going on when you’re outdoors hiking.”
When she isn’t planning the monthly hike, Wadman, who is fluent in Spanish, regularly donates her time to SOY by visiting colleges with high school students and recruiting her friends to help edit students’ college application essays. About 400 local youths visit SOY every year for fitness, artistic and academic programs, Rosales said.
“The population that we work with is underserved and underprivileged. So for ... all these students, just the exposure of hiking, the exposure of college tours, is life-changing,” Rosales said. “It’s really impactful because it gives them other avenues of expression.”
The hikes are just some of SOY’s regular fitness offerings. The 25-year-old organization also provides dance, yoga, spin, basketball and soccer classes, as well as free gym time in its fitness area. The hiking trips are important because they get teenagers outside and off their phones to appreciate nature, said Mary Cappellini, fundraising chairwoman of SOY’s board of directors.
“We just see, especially in the neighborhoods that we’re working with, that our students don’t have a lot of opportunity outside of school to really be engaged in a lot of physical activities or have the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful outdoors that are so close,” Cappellini said.
On one hike at Crystal Cove, kids took off running as soon as the trail reached the beach, Wadman said. One said he hadn’t been to a beach in five years.
Wadman said she loves sharing her passion for hiking with her young neighbors. She hopes getting them outdoors can alleviate their stress and teach them about caring for the environment.
“I feel like I’m just planting a little seed,” she said. “And hopefully, as they move on in their life, they will enjoy the outdoors.”
Editor’s note: This is an installment of Unsung Heroes, an annual feature that highlights otherwise overlooked members of the community.